When actors talk about their big breaks, they tend to talk about the moments when they crossed the ephemeral line where obscurity morphs into ubiquity. Then you have the confounding exceptions, the cases like Patrick Wilson. The actor will be the first to explain (with no shortage of charm and self-deprecation) that his career has been an uninterrupted succession of big breaks—when his college pals were bartending, he was starring in a national tour of the musical Carousel, which landed him leads in The Full Monty and Oklahoma! on Broadway, which led to his Emmy-nominated role in Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Angels in America, which led to his stellar turn opposite Kate Winslet in Little Children. Yet to most of the public, he remains as obscure as he was when he moved to New York fourteen years ago. Doubly vexing is that Wilson, thanks in no small part to looking eerily like a young Paul Newman, has managed to date a handful of starlets at the apex of their notoriety (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Scarlett Johansson) without registering so much as a tremor on the Richter scale of tabloid obsession. “Most people outside the business, it’s safe to say, have no idea who I am,” he says. “If I ever get looks on the street, which, for the record, is almost never, it’s rarely because they think I’m someone they saw in a movie. More often someone sees me and thinks, Hey, was that guy my waiter the other night?”
This phase, Wilson was recently informed, will not last much longer. The prediction came not from a friend or an agent, who basically have to say such things, but from a stranger who approached Wilson wearing a makeshift costume of black body armor and chunky red, white, and blue shoulder pads. “He was dressed exactly like the Comedian,” says Wilson, referring to one of the central characters in Watchmen, the $120 million film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s celebrated and subversive 1986 graphic novel about downtrodden superheroes. Because Wilson stars, he was making the requisite appearance at the Comic-Con convention, where he was formally introduced to fanboys as the man who would be playing Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl. After fulfilling his required duties (panel discussion, autograph-signing, photo ops), Wilson was hanging out with a friend when the Comedian clone approached. “He walks by and does a double take when he sees me,” Wilson recalls. “Then he says, ‘Enjoy it, man, because next year you’re not gonna be able to walk through here without being mobbed.’ ”
You’ll forgive Wilson if he has his doubts. While Watchmen is by far the most heavily promoted movie Wilson’s done—and probably the reason he’s now reluctant to reveal the precise neighborhood of his Brooklyn home—his track record with big-budget studio films has been a case study in near misses with mainstream recognition. Back in 2004, when he was cast as one of the leads in The Alamo, a quickly forgotten epic about Davy Crockett, he and his buddies had a running joke leading up to the day of the film’s release. “It was my first studio movie,” Wilson, 35, says, “and my friends and I were like, ‘Okay, it comes out on Friday, so Saturday you guys are gonna have to lock me up because I won’t be able to walk down the street.’ It was kind of a joke, obviously, but then when the movie came out and didn’t do too well … ” Wilson pauses for comedic effect. “Well, then it was really a joke, you know?”
That said, Wilson is aware that Watchmen is a different beast. Despite grim premonitions that digital piracy is destroying the movie industry, last year saw the highest box-office returns in Hollywood history—a record owing no small debt to the superhero movie, a genre that appears to be recessionproof: keeping studios in business with billion-dollar returns (The Dark Knight), turning arty directors into industry stalwarts (Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi), reinventing the careers of wayward talent (Robert Downey Jr.), and pushing fringe actors into bona fide stardom (Tobey Maguire). When Jack Nicholson delivered his masterly Joker twenty years ago, an Oscar was never mentioned; last week, the late Heath Ledger won an Academy Award for the same part.
“Something’s definitely changed,” acknowledges Wilson, who recently finished a run on Broadway opposite Katie Holmes in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. “But I don’t think the attitude is as new as people make it out to be. Yes, there used to be more of a stigma to tights roles, but studios have always gravitated toward unexpected actors. When Christopher Reeve did Superman, he was a serious stage actor, and when Michael Keaton played Batman, he was doing some of the most varied roles of anyone onscreen.”